A Reflection on Pre-Service Training: Part 4, Food
How would you describe the taste, types, and amount of food in Indonesia?
The food in Indonesia has been delicious, but it is also been the one constant source of frustration throughout PST. The food doesn’t exactly make the healthiest meals in the world, and the quantity that is served to me is often uncomfortably too much. A majority of the trainees have had similar experiences to mine. I feel comfortable sharing this frustration publically because it’s been an issue I’ve tried helplessly to discuss with my family and an issue I’ve discussed with other trainees.
First, what do I eat? I eat a lot of rice, a lot of tahu (tofu), and a lot of tempe. The tempe is my favorite. The dishes have a small kick to them, but they aren’t too spicy. Though cabe (peppers) are common here, hot food doesn’t seem to be a source of pride. I tend to like my food spicier than my family, so I usually add extra peppers. This is one aspect of eating in Indonesia that I can really get behind. Because tahu and tempe aren’t made with any spices, the appropriate way to eat spicy tahu/tempe is to pick up a tahu and a cabe, take a bite of the tahu and then take a bite of the cabe. The practice basically amounts to eating raw peppers, which I am a fan of.
Now to nutrition: Indonesia has its own version of the food pyramid—what a healthy diet should consist of—but adherence to it is more strict here than it is in the United States. For example, someone casually preparing a meal in the United States might be generally aware that there should be grains, fruit, vegetables, and protein somewhere in the mix, but items might be mixed or matched. Different parts of the food pyramid can also come in a wide variety of forms (e.g., protein could be a meat, a bean, or sometimes a vegetable). In Indonesia, however, the food groups are nasi (rice), laut (a dish with protein), and sayor (a dish with vegetables). Usually at my dinner table, there are literally three bowls/plates on the table: one with rice, one with some sort of meat or protein dish, and one with vegetables. Additionally there might be some sort of sauce, sambel, which is spicy and quite delicious. This food pyramid in itself isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but everything is fried. The laut dish, which is often tahu (tofu) or tempe is always fried. The vegetables are never fresh; they’re always boiled heavily and served in an oily broth. Even the sambel, which is blended from a wonderful concoction of chiles and tomatoes is thrown into the deep frier before being served. The other trainees and I have not been able to explain the obsessive reliance on fried food, but fellow village mate John has an interesting post on his opinions of Indonesian health related to food. I can say for myself that I’ve been to a local health clinic here (just to visit and chat), and hypertension is one of the most common ailments reported.
The real challenge, however, has been refusing food. In traditional Indonesian culture, it’s impolite to accept food at the first offering. It’s also impolite to accept food at the second offering. It’s not until the third offering that it’s truly polite to take the offer. This cultural norm is a bit of an exaggeration from my observation, though it is still mentioned as a custom. People actually expect you to take food on the first offer (if you want it), and nobody would be offended if you did so. The tradition is still alive and well in an Indonesian household, however, through the fact that a hostess will incessantly continue to offer food (my analysis is that it’s still a subconscious hold over from feeling the need to make three offers before the guest is comfortable accepting).
The long story short is that missing a meal in my household is a preposterous proposition that certainly indicates I am sick. And, by Indonesian prognosis, if you are sick, you must eat to gain strength. Therefore, if I try to tell my family that I am not hungry (or that if I have a stomach ache because I’m too full), I will likely be offered more food so that I can overcome my illness. Try to follow that logic.
Again, perhaps this is still too much of a reaction—something I want to avoid on this blog—but I feel comfortable posting this frustration because it’s something a lot of the trainees have dealt with, and I have tried my hardest to explain to my family when, why, and how much I want to eat. I have had little success.
But as a final note, I’d like to remind you that the food is REALLY good…in small quantities. If you come to visit, you will not be disappointed.